Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell wants the City Council to approve a $2.33 billion budget for fiscal year 2017, but judging from key Council members’ critical reactions Wednesday, it’s going to be a fight.

The mayor’s budget request, presented at a Honolulu Hale press conference, would increase the city’s spending by $57 million, a 2.5 percent jump from the current fiscal year.

Caldwell wants to add 79 new positions at a cost of about $2 million. That includes $477,000 to fund eight positions in a new real estate asset development division under the city Department of Community Services that would work with private developers in an attempt to create affordable housing.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell budget press conference held at Honolulu Hale.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell describes his proposed fiscal year 2017 budget at Honolulu Hale on Wednesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Caldwell made a similar bid last year, but the Council resoundingly rejected it, funding none of the seven new positions the mayor sought to manage housing development.

In an interview after the mayor’s press conference, Council Chairman Ernie Martin was extremely critical of adding positions.

“The Budget Committee looks forward to this exercise, but it’s going to be a tough sell,” Martin said.

The city is currently expecting a $79 million increase in property tax revenue that would offset the extra spending proposed by the mayor, but Martin said that may not materialize because the Council is considering a property tax decrease for properties worth over $1 million that aren’t owner-occupied.

Caldwell seemed to recognize the likelihood of resistance. Near the end of his news conference, he left the podium to stand closer to the cameras and urged the Council to fund the housing positions.

“I’m asking the Council, it’s not about politics here. It’s not about I win, they lose, they win, I lose. We all win by housing more folks,” he said. “It’s demanded by the people of this community and our own conscience.”

“I’m making the plea not to do politics but to do good government.”

Martin was not impressed. He held his own press conference in his office immediately after the mayor’s.

“Make sure you get my box of Kleenex in the shot,” Martin told reporters. He wore a blue shirt that matched the tissue box on his desk. “It moved me to tears, that emotional plea.”

City Council Chair Ernie Martin with a box of tissue/kleenex for mayor on the desk during press conference.
City Council Chair Ernie Martin uses a box of Kleenex as a prop during a press conference in his office Wednesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The councilman from the North Shore slammed the mayor for not working with the Council and for failing to control rising construction costs for the city’s rail project.

“The Council has put forth a number of initiatives that the mayor has ignored,” Martin said, citing as an example the mayor’s decision not to move forward with redeveloping the Hilo Hattie property on Nimitz Highway into affordable housing.

Martin told Civil Beat after his press conference that he hasn’t ruled out running for mayor this year, but added that politics isn’t affecting his judgment.

“He cannot say in one breath that the Council is playing politics when he himself refuses to work with us on many initiatives,” Martin said of Caldwell. “It’s a two-way street.”

A Lot To Disagree About

Martin’s remarks came after Caldwell criticized the Council repeatedly Wednesday, at one point taking its members to task for not hearing a resolution that would allow a low-income senior housing project on Rivers Street.

“It may not be perfect for everyone in Chinatown, but the vast majority of people support this project,” Caldwell said.

Martin said some neighbors are upset about the proposal and he wanted the administration to hold community meetings before the resolution was considered.

Caldwell condemned a Council bill that would establish a moratorium on development in Aiea, Red Hill, Moanalua and Salt Lake. The mayor supports a rental housing project planned for Red Hill.

He also criticized the Council’s decision to use bond financing to fund affordable housing projects rather than less restrictive funds.

There may be some areas of agreement. Caldwell said his administration is open to Martin’s idea of purchasing the Blood Bank of Hawaii’s building in Kalihi and turning it into a resource center for homeless people.

And Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who leads the Budget Committee, was supportive of the mayor’s $490.7 million request for sewer upgrades, which includes $83.5 million to improve wastewater capacity in Kalihi to account for planned development around rail.

“The more sewers we can fix in the city, the more development we can have and then we can collect more property tax,” she said.

Mayor Caldwell wants to spend the bulk of fiscal year 2017 capital improvement funds on sewer upgrades that he says will make it easier to build affordable housing in the urban core.
Mayor Caldwell wants to spend the bulk of fiscal year 2017 capital improvement funds on sewer upgrades that he says will make it easier to build affordable housing in the urban core. Courtesy of Mayor Caldwell

But like Martin, she opposes the mayor’s push to add more positions to address housing.

“The mayor has so many housing positions already,” Kobayashi said.

Rather than funding Caldwell’s proposed housing positions last year, Kobayashi and the Council added their own housing coordinator position. Martin hired Peter Boylan, former deputy chief of staff to the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, fueling speculation about a possible mayoral bid for Martin.

Boylan said Wednesday his job has been focused on policy, not politics. He said he’s spent the past several months working with Council members to draft bills with district-specific community-based solutions to homelessness, including urban rest stops and social service navigation centers inspired by other cities.

Disagreement between the mayor and Martin extends beyond housing. The councilman said Caldwell’s $3 million request to upgrade Ala Moana Park is “personally unacceptable” given the relative lack of recreational opportunities in other parts of Oahu, and suggested that the mayor is bowing to the interests of wealthy condo developers in nearby Kakaako.

Bad Blood

Caldwell and Martin say that they want to work with each other and want to address homelessness and housing. But Wednesday’s back-to-back press conferences illustrated the gulf between them.

In a recent newspaper editorial, Martin lambasted Caldwell for lack of progress on homelessness and called for an audit of how the city spends money on homelessness initiatives.

Martin also wrote that the Council is working on identifying parcels and buildings where the city can put housing for the homeless. On Wednesday, Caldwell gave press conference attendees copies of letters that he sent Martin in February requesting a list of of those parcels.

The councilman told reporters that he didn’t have one.

“The only thing I can offer to the mayor at this point is this box of Kleenex,” said Martin, adding later that the mayor was playing politics by handing out those letters.

Martin compared Caldwell unfavorably with his predecessors, Peter Carlisle and Mufi Hannemann, in terms of the mayor’s willingness to work with the Council and courtesies that he’d extend to them.

Carlisle would personally call each Council member and ask if they could attend the annual State of the City address, and would give the Council chairman and Budget Committee leader an advance copy of the budget, Martin said.

“The mere fact that there were only three members of the City Council at his State of the City address is a strong message that the members are very dissatisfied with how he perceives the Council,” Martin said.

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